I have never believed that you must completely love yourself first before you can love another. I know many people who are hard on themselves, yet love their friends and family deeply and are loved in return — though they might have difficulty in receiving that love. But it’s hard to sustain love for others over the long haul until we have a sense of inner abundance and sufficiency.
When we experience inner impoverishment, love for another too easily becomes hunger: for reassurance, for acclaim, for affirmation of our worth. Feeling incomplete inside ourselves, we search for others to complete us. But the equation doesn’t work that way: we can’t gain from others what we’re unable to give ourselves.
It’s important to recognize that self-love is an unfolding process that gains strength over time, not a goal with a fixed end point. When we start to pay attention, we see that we’re challenged daily to act lovingly on our own behalf. Simple gestures of respect — care of the body, rest for the mind, and beauty for the soul in the form of music and art or nature — are all ways of showing ourselves love. Really, all of our actions — from how we respond when we can’t fit into our favorite jeans to the choice of foods we eat — can signify self-love or self-sabotage. So can the way we react when a stranger cuts us off in line, a friend does something hurtful, or we get an unwelcome medical diagnosis.
As Maya Angelou said in her book Letter to My Daughter, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” I started meditation practice, as many do, with the need to turn around that tendency to feel reduced by life.
Still, it takes a special courage to challenge the rigid confines of our accustomed story. It’s not that easy to radically alter our views about where happiness comes from, or what brings us joy. But it’s eminently possible. We truly can reconfigure how we see ourselves and reclaim the love for ourselves that we’re innately capable of. That’s why I invite students to set out on this path in the spirit of adventure, instead of feeling that real love is a pass/fail exam that they’re scared to take.
Although love is often depicted as starry-eyed and sweet, love for the self is made of tougher stuff. It’s not a sappy form of denial. You still might feel rage, desire, and shame like everyone else in the world, but you can learn to hold these emotions in a context of wisdom.
Real love allows for failure and suffering. All of us have made real mistakes, and some of those mistakes were consequential, but you can find a way to relate to them with kindness. No matter what troubles have befallen you or what difficulties you have caused yourself or others, with love for yourself you can change, grow, make amends, and learn. Real love is not about letting yourself off the hook. Real love does not encourage you to ignore your problems or deny your mistakes and imperfections. You see them clearly and still opt to love.
This is an excerpt from Sharon Salzberg’s book, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. It is reprinted here with permission.